The Importance of Word Stress (In The English Language)

I’ve come across countless students who have a  decent understanding of English grammar, writing, and vocabulary. However, many of these same students continue to struggle with speaking and have difficulty being understood by native English speakers. What is the reason? They have not taken the time to tackle word stress.  

What exactly is word stress?

Each word in English is broken into a number of syllables. Short words like dog,  car, box and so on are one syllable words. Meaning each of these words only has one sound.  Words such as pretty (pret-ty), quiet (qui-et) and export (ex-port) are broken up into two syllables.

Then there are words with three, four and even five or more syllables. Think of the words  important (im-por-tant), realistic (real-is-tic) and communication (com-mun-i-ca-tion).  Each syllable needs to be pronounced, but some syllables are STRESSED more than others depending on the word. For example, in the word ‘quiet’, the first syllable is STRESSED, so the first syllable is pronounced a little bit stronger and should read QUiet.  English is not a flat language, but one of stresses and varying intonations. This is not only a difficult concept to grasp for Asian speakers studying English, but generally for all English as a second language students. Even if one understands that importance of word stress, knowing exactly where to emphasize stress is no easy task.

What are some general rules to follow for word stress?

English is a very inconsistent language when it comes to rules. Since it is littered with exceptions, you should always keep in mind that there are no definite rules to English, but general rules and patterns that can be followed. First, only one syllable can be stressed in an English word regardless if it has two, three, or even four or more syllables.

In most two-syllable NOUNS AND ADJECTIVES, the stress comes in the firs syllable of the word. Think of the nouns PRESent, TABle and DOCtor. The stress is in the first part of the word. Now think of the adjectives GIant, UGly and WASTEful. Again the stress is in the first syllable. For most two-syllable verbs,  the stress is in the second syllable. Lets examine the verbs, exPORT, reGRET and proNOUNCE. The stress is now in the second syllable.

For words that have three or more syllables, understanding where to place the stress becomes a little more tricky, but there are some general patterns that can be followed. The stress comes in the second to last syllable in any word that end in -ic, -sion or tion.

Words ending in -icGRAPHic, geoGRAPHic, geoLOGic
Words ending in -sion and -tionteleVIsion, reveLAtion

For any word ending in the suffixes -cy, gy, phy, ty or al, the stress comes in the THIRD syllable  from the LAST. Think of the word historical. The stress comes in the third syllable from the last, so we stress OR in histORical.

Words ending in -cy, -ty, -phy and -gydeMOcracy, dependaBIlity, phoTOgraphy, geOLogy
Words ending in -alCRItical, geoLOGical


Should English as a second language students care about word stress and should teachers take more time to teach it?

Absolutely yes and definitely yes! Word stress is not something extra that students should study if they have time. It is an essential part of learning  English because it is a major component of the English language. While some languages have little or limited stress, English is a heavily stressed based language. Unfortunately, the majority of ESL teachers and students ignore the necessity to practice word stress. If I had two dollars for every student I’ve met who was frustrated that his or her speaking skills weren’t improving despite significant gains in the areas of grammar, writing and vocabulary, I would have a decent amount of savings. If you are a student out there, then you need to be studying word stress. If you are a teacher, then you should take time each week to practice it with your students.

This article discusses a few rules to follow for word stress, but there are other patterns and exceptions that need to be remembered.  Please check out my future articles and videos on word stress.

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